I saw the 1970 movie "The Boys in the Band" for the first time last night on DVD. And it got me thinking about the arc of the gay struggle, gay history in the 20th century. -------------------- The Black Cat Bar was a famous/infamous bar in San Francisco that saw a flux of gay patrons after WWII -- the end of the '40's and all through the 1950's (the bar closed in 1964). This bar had broken the barriers that prevented overtly gay bars from existing freely. A 1951 California Supreme Court decision banned the closing down of a bar simply because homosexuals were the usual customers. In other words, police could bust patrons suspected of congregating in public spaces before 1951 in California merely because they might be gay. The bar actually attracted a bohemian crowd. Poets (Beat poets), painters, writers -- many were heterosexual -- but, increasingly through the 1950's it became more and more gay. Although gay men were now permitted to "congregate" they could not dance together. Two men touching, in a perceived sexual way, could still get you arrested. I suspect gay men have always had a "fun", outrageous sense of humor, even near the end of the 1800's, Oscar Wilde's day, but in these gay meeting places of the '50's, "camp" humor began to flower. Camp humor is a knowing, specialized kind of humor. Camp humor, a camp sensibility, thrives on excess and artifice and exaggeration. Stereotypical camp (and camp that was immitated in gay bars) is what Bette Davis did in the 1950 film "All About Eve". I'm not sure why an oppressed people such as gay men in the 1940's and 1950's would be drawn to camp humor. There must be a psychological component mirroring their state of mind. But gay men thrived on outrageous, stylized, saturated humor. An unnatural humor. A private code, a badge of identity. Back in these days, homosexuality was widely considered to be a mental disorder. People were hospitalized and institutionalized. Many gays themselves considered their homosexuality to be a mental disorder, an aberration. Gay sex itself was criminal. There was not a lot of Gay Pride in the 1950's, just a lot of gay shame and guilt, because gay men largely bought into what society thought of them. José Sarria and his sister, Teresa, started coming to the Black Cat in the early '50's. Both became smitten with a young waiter named Jimmy Moore - and they made a private bet as to which of them could get this guy into bed first. José won. He and Moore soon became lovers. Sarria began covering for Moore when he was unable to work and soon Black Cat owner Sol Stoumen hired José as a cocktail waiter. José also picked up some small singing jobs while cocktail waiting at the Black Cat. José Sarria keeps coming up in the early histories of the gay movement. He had an outrageous, campy sense of humor. He loved to dress in drag (which was also illegal... an obscure law on the books was used by police to arrest men dressed as women "with the intent to deceive"). One night at the Black Cat, Sarria recognized the piano player's rendition of Bizet's opera Carmen and began singing arias from the opera while he delivered drinks. His exaggerated singing and general campy behavior became a big hit; this quickly led to a schedule of three to four shows a night, in drag, along with a regular Sunday afternoon show. Sarria was billed as "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street". Initially he focused on singing parodies of popular torch songs. Soon, however, Sarria was performing full-blown parodic operas in his natural high tenor. His specialty was a re-working of Carmen set in modern-day San Francisco. Sarria as Carmen would prowl through the popular cruising area Union Square. The audience cheered "Carmen" on as she dodged the vice squad and made her escape. Let wikipedia take it from here: Sarria encouraged patrons to be as open and honest as possible. "People were living double lives and I didn't understand it. It was persecution. Why be ashamed of who you are?" He exhorted the clientele, "There's nothing wrong with being gay - the crime is getting caught", and "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one". At closing time he would call upon patrons to join hands and sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens" to the tune of "God Save the Queen". Sometimes he would bring the crowd outside to sing the final verse to the men across the street in jail, who had been arrested in raids earlier in the night. Speaking of this ritual in the film Word is Out, gay journalist George Mendenhall said: It sounds silly, but if you lived at that time and had the oppression coming down from the police department and from society, there was nowhere to turn ... and to be able to put your arms around other gay men and to be able to stand up and sing 'God Save Us Nelly Queens' ... we were really not saying 'God Save Us Nelly Queens.' We were saying 'We have our rights, too'. -------------------- For the longest time, I've sort of been ashamed of being a gay man lumped together with "drag queens", but in many early (20th century) histories of Gay Liberation, drag queens keep appearing, leading the way. I think it must have something to do with drag queens having nothing to lose. Men who felt "at home" in drag must have had a harder time in the '40's and '50's assimilating in the general ("straight") culture. They seemed to fight longer and harder against police raids -- compared to the gay business man who could "pass" in the general population. The same thing was true at the Stonewall Inn. Drag queens fighting to be free of police harrassment and incarceration. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, finally, removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.